Uighur journalists who covered protests such as this one in 2009 were sentenced to harsh prison terms. (AP)
A Uighur woman protests before a group of paramilitary police. (AP)

China must allow free reporting and Internet in Urumqi

New York, July 7, 2009–Authorities in northwestern Xinjiang should stop the harassment of journalists reporting on ethnic rioting and restore Internet access in the regional capital, Urumqi, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

At least one journalist was detained for two hours in Urumqi today for reporting independently of a government-organized media tour of the damaged city, according to National Public Radio. “I went independently of the group, and so police dragged me down to the police station and questioned me for a couple of hours,” Anthony Kuhn said in his report.

The Beijing-based Foreign Correspondents Club of China said Tuesday it had received reports that security forces in Xinjiang had “detained TV crews and other reporters,” confiscated or damaged equipment, and interfered with interviews in the past two days.

An official in Urumqi confirmed Tuesday that Internet connections had been cut in parts of the city in response to outbreaks of violence involving the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority, police, and Han Chinese residents, according to the official news agency Xinhua. The official did not say when access would be restored.

Journalists remain at risk from armed vigilantes who continue to roam the streets amid a high security presence, according to international news reports.

“Authorities in Xinjiang should allow journalists to do their jobs in covering the unfolding events,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “People in China and throughout the world are relying on the Internet to stay informed about this important story. Cutting off Internet access only fuels rumors and misinformation.”

Foreign journalists were not barred from the autonomous region as they were during ethnic riots in Tibet in March 2008, but Internet restrictions and interference in phone service hindered reporting. “A Han Chinese man with a stick just tore open our car door to beat our producer. Averted just in time,” Al-Jazeera correspondent Melissa Chan said on Twitter. She said Internet access for foreign reporters was confined to one room in her hotel; she was sending Twitter updates by text message to a friend in Beijing who posted them on the site.

“Crowd now turning on Telegraph reporter and assistant. Anti-foreigner attack,” UK Daily Telegraph correspondent Malcolm Moore told Twitter followers from Shanghai, based on phone contact with his colleague on the ground. “Phew. Peter Foster, Telegraph man in Urumqi, and his assistant are fine. Cops protected them,” he updated shortly afterward.

Other Internet users reported that access to Twitter and other social networking sites, including Facebook, had been restricted in parts of China since Sunday. Journalists speculated that censors were trying to stem the tide of unconfirmed accounts and images of the clashes, which spread online over 12 hours before they appeared in state news broadcasts, according to international news reports. Those images are now ubiquitous in Chinese news coverage, which depicts the rioting as being orchestrated by ethnic separatists. Discussion forums and commenting features on several news sites have been disabled.

Exile Uighur groups say local residents initiated peaceful protests against Chinese rule in the historically tense region on Sunday. It remained unclear on Tuesday why the protests escalated into rioting, which the government says killed at least 150 people, according to international news reports. Journalists have not independently confirmed the death toll; neither the ethnic breakdown of the victims nor evidence of who was responsible for the deadly violence has been established, according to news reports.